The modern western genre has certainly seen a huge resurgence in interest in recent years. TV shows like Yellowstone, Longmire, and more have proven huge hits for many streaming services. So, we weren't too surprised when author C.J. Box's long-running Joe Pickett series of books about the exploits of a Wyoming game warden was picked up to be adapted for the small screen. The only question is how faithful the series would be. After all, the character of Joe Pickett is a straight-laced do-gooder, albeit a highly flawed one. He's a terrible shot with his handgun, and he's not exactly a people person. In fact, by the character's own admission, he often blunders his way through the many cases of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy that have become a trademark of the series. Plus, he has a rather questionable friendship with a man with an incredibly shady past named Nate Romanowski.
When we heard about this new TV series, we were curious how much this new drama series would stray from the source material. Would the characters maintain their traits, and would scenes play out the same? Hollywood often gets hunting and fishing topics rather wrong. We were pleasantly surprised to see how much they got right here. We'll keep things as spoiler-free as possible from here on out, but the show does a fine job of bringing the complicated world of Joe Pickett to life.
The World of Game Warden Joe Pickett
One of the things that made the books so much fun was just how ordinary C.J. Box's hero is. He's not a gunslinger, he's not a tough guy, he's not even that great of a detective. Pickett, played by Michael Dorman, is just an average guy who struggles to make ends meet on a meager game warden's salary in the small rural town of Saddlestring, Wyoming. He even lives in a government-owned home with his wife Marybeth (Julianna Guill) and two daughters Sheridan (Skywalker Hughes) and Lucy (Kamryn Pilva). He has a rich and manipulative mother-in-law named Missy (Sharon Lawrence), who hates his guts and does everything in her power to undermine Joe's marriage to her daughter. In the books, Joe doesn't go looking for trouble, it just sort of seems to follow him around and he earns his reputation more by accident than anything else. He'd much rather be on a mountain range in his pickup doing an elk count than in the middle of a raid of a dangerous criminal's home. In the books he's constantly finding himself dealing with murderers, assassins, corrupt law enforcement and government officials, vengeful families, conspiracy theorists, crazed anti-hunters, and even terrorists.
For the series, the show's creators decided to mash together pieces of the first Pickett novel "Open Season" with elements from the third one named "Winterkill." Which is a fine decision, and common in these sorts of adaptations. To me, it's obvious they made that move to get one of the book audience's favorite characters Nate Romanowski, depicted by Mustafa Speaks, into the show as quickly as possible. Nate's character is a reclusive falconer and ex-special forces soldier with an incredibly shady past. He'd rather not reveal his full story to a game warden, and Joe doesn't want to know about anyway. In the books, Nate swears loyalty and protection to the Pickett family after Joe clears him of a murder he didn't commit. They kind of take the same route, as Nate is quickly implicated in a vicious crime and he later asks Marybeth to be on his legal team, a tidbit that wasn't in the books.
The show starts with Joe's first day on the job where he catches local poacher Ote Keeley (Benjamin Hollinsworth) red-handed with several hunted elk on the ground out of season. Hollinsworth's acting is laughably poor in this series, but he's not in many scenes, so it's able to be overlooked. The situation escalates into a humiliating one for Joe. I had to ignore Joe's terrible line about bull elk being "new poppas." That line was clearly written by a non-hunter, but it's one of the only real cringeworthy ones of the season. We won't spoil what happens next, but Ote's wife Jeannie (Leah Gibson) and daughter April (Vivienne Guynn) also play heavily into the season in a fashion that's mostly true to the books. I'm looking forward to seeing how they follow up on those plot threads in season two.
The first episode ends with a rather unexpected situation at Joe's home that launches the game warden away from his normal work and into a role in a criminal murder investigation. He's constantly butting heads with local Sheriff Barnum (Patrick Gallagher), Barnum's nitwit Deputy McLanahan (Chad Rook), his predecessor Vern Dunnegan (David Alan Grier), and fellow game warden Wacey Hederman (Paul Sparks). From there, the story burns slowly like the fuse on a stick of dynamite; you're just waiting for it all to blow. Not everyone in Saddlestring is what they seem at first, and there's more going on with this murder than meets the eye.
For anyone not familiar with the books, you can expect some fun plot twists and turns that should keep you guessing. Not that the series is all serious, either. I was pleasantly surprised they mixed in some nice dry humor that bodes well with the tone of the books and the no-nonsense attitudes of the people of Wyoming.
The Acting and Flow of Season One
This show was clearly shot on a budget. Anyone familiar with Wyoming will be quick to recognize the series obviously wasn't shot on location. It's a little too green for the high desert landscapes of most of Wyoming. In fact, it was filmed mostly in Alberta, Canada. There are also several scenes with some bad-looking CGI animals and helicopters, but these are thankfully short. I also spotted some infuriating scenes where actors portraying members of law enforcement use cringeworthy Hollywood "teacup" style grips to hold their handguns. Joe also spends much of the first half of the season doing his law enforcement work with an old bolt-action .22 LR. They explain his reasons for using it, but it takes you out of the story a little. Most of my complaints are mild. The Joe Pickett television show is likely the best possible adaptation of this book series. Michael Dorman is great as Joe, conveying Joe's inner doubts and confidence issues that are present in the early novels simply though his facial expressions. In the books, Joe is a guy who's constantly embarrassed and second guessing himself even though his gut instinct is usually the right one. Dorman manages to convey that type of persona perfectly. He's exactly who I'd picture this guy to be in real life.
However, the best performance of the series likely goes to Julianna Guill as Marybeth. Box's descriptions of Marybeth always seemed a little too perfect to me in the early novels. He always describes her as beautiful, smart, confident, loyal, and far too good for Joe. She was almost perfect to the point of being uninteresting. It wasn't until he was nearly six or seven books into the series that Box finally fleshed her out and introduced a few small character flaws to Marybeth that made her seem a bit more human.
The good news is that in the series, Guill gives Marybeth a bit more depth and nuance right away that was clearly missing from the written character in the earlier novels. They also give her a bit more to do than just act as Joe's behind the scenes researcher for whatever case he's working on, as is often the case in the books. Guill's best scene comes during a dramatic moment during the final episode of season one, of which I cannot say more without spoiling it.
The most interesting casting in the series is Mustafa Speaks as Nate. In the books Nate is described as a tall caucasian man with a long blonde ponytail. Speaks gives us a whole different version of Romanowski, who trains and hunts with his captive falcons. Like Marybeth, I may have found Speaks' Nate a little more interesting than the written version. Speaks' version of Nate is much harder to read and even more unpredictable, which if you know the books, is saying something. Nate does do something rather unexpected about halfway through the season that wasn't in any of the books that does come off as a little out of character given the circumstances. Longtime fans will know the scene when they see it. The show also does away with the idea of Nate carrying a monstrous .454 Casull revolver as an everyday carry gun, which is probably for the best. It works for the books, but it probably would have looked a little silly for the show to have him toting that kind of firepower casually.
In the supporting roles, Sharon Lawrence was the perfect casting choice for Missy, Joe's monstrous mother-in-law. Somehow Lawrence manages to make the audience hate her character even more than they do in the books. The same goes for Chad Rook's version of the despicable Deputy McLanahan. I thought David Alan Grier was a bit of an odd choice for Joe's game warden predecessor Vern Dunnegan. Grier is a bit too likeable for the direction his character takes in this series. But without revealing too much, his performance becomes a little more fitting as more is revealed about Dunnegan in the later episodes.
Joe's daughter Sheridan has probably been my favorite character in the books simply because of her close bond with Joe and a great coming-of-age arc through all 20-plus novels. I kind of doubt the series will run long enough that we'll get to see the whole thing, which is a shame. But Skywalker Hughes is very believable as the young daughter Sheridan. Child actors are notoriously hard to cast, especially for more action-oriented roles, which Hughes finds herself in often during the later episodes of season one. Kudos to this young lady for a fine performance in what was likely a very tough role for her.
Another major way the series departs from the novels is that we learn of Joe's past, growing up in an abusive household, right up front in season one. This was a topic Box didn't explore until much later in the series. Because I've read the books, this unveiling felt a little out of place here. In the show, it breaks up the pacing of the main plot line a little too much. There is a late payoff to some of the flashbacks with Joe's brother Victor and mother and some of Marybeth and Sheridan's later scenes, but the season-long setup for these scenes feels just a tad bit excessive. In the end, we already know what kind of man Joe is from his interactions with his family and the people in town. We didn't really need the extra exposition. It feels like things could have flowed better if they saved those sections for a later season.
Ultimately, the first season of Joe Pickett is fun, albeit a little rough around the edges, but that's to be expected with almost any show's first season. It's a fine show that's clearly working within a budget and is great for what it is. After all, the storylines of many of the Pickett novels are a bit unconventional. I think I would enjoy the melding together of two books more if I didn't already know those as two separate stories. Still, long-time fans of the book series should find plenty to love here in the show's characters, which are the main attraction. There's also plenty to love for just about anyone who's a fan of the modern western drama genre. Word has it that Spectrum Originals is already working on a second season, so Joe Pickett will be around for a while. For now, you can find the complete first season streaming on Paramount Plus. There are only ten episodes, and it is a fast watch. I suspect most people will binge through it quickly in just a couple of evenings, because it's just that good.
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